ESL Pronunciation Pitfall: The ‘-ed’ Ending of the Simple Past

Have you ever heard a student say something like “I work-ed late last night,” rhyming the -ed ending with “bed”? Even in my Advanced class, we hear this occasionally. And why not? It certainly looks like it should rhyme with bed! But it doesn’t. Instead you say “work/t/.” It’s just one more example of English pronunciation being totally crazy. Volunteer Sharla Branscombe teaches a weekday 2B class at Language ETC (she’s also in the TESOL master’s program at American University). She recently taught her class about pronouncing the past tense of regular verbs and wrote up this description of her activity for us. Thanks, Sharla.

By Sharla Branscombe

Let’s face it: as native speakers, we’re really not all that aware of our pronunciation. It’s easy for us to say that something sounds right or wrong, but much harder to say why. So when my co-teachers and I noticed that many of our students were having trouble with the past tense pronunciation rule, I decided to dedicate a lesson just to this.

As we know, English has two ways of constructing the simple past. Irregular verbs use irregular forms, while regular verbs add -ed to the base verb. The problem is, there are three different ways of pronouncing that -ed.

  • It can sound like /d/. No extra syllable, just a quick /d/ sound. For example, cleaned, tagged, saved, stayed. This is the rule when the base verb ends in a voiced consonant sound (like n, g, v, b, z), or when it ends in a vowel.
  • It can sound like /t/. No extra syllable, just a quick /t/ sound. For example, walked, shopped, laughed. This is the rule when the base verb ends in an unvoiced consonant sound (like k, p, f, s).
  • It can sound like /id/. In this case you do pronounce -ed as an extra syllable. For example, attended, waited, started. This is the rule when the base verb itself ends in the sound of /t/ or /d/.

Now, most native speakers aren’t going to hear much difference between the first two choices on this list, that is, between the /d/ and /t/ endings. It’s not a big deal if your students say clean/t/ instead of clean/d/ or walk/d/ instead of walk/t/. Native speakers will, however, hear a BIG difference between clean/d/ (one syllable) and clean-ed (two syllables), or between walk/t/ and walk-ed. Because the rule about voiced versus unvoiced consonants doesn’t make a big difference, and because it would be pretty difficult to teach, I decided to leave this rule out of the lesson. But I did decide that the one-versus-two-syllables rule was very important to my students’ natural speech. This left me with three categories of past tense:

  • Irregular verbs (whose past tense forms must be memorized)
  • Regular verbs where the -ed ending sounds like /t/ or /d/ (no extra syllable)
  • Regular verbs where the -ed ending sounds like /id/ (as an extra syllable).

2B teacher Sharla Branscombe in her classroom at Language ETC.

I started the lesson by drawing three columns on the board. I purposely didn’t tell my students what these columns were for, because I wanted to keep them interested and engaged — and what better way to do this than to keep them guessing? After the columns were drawn, I asked the students to tell me what they did over the weekend (hello, past tense!). As students gave me sentences and phrases, I wrote these on the board in their appropriate columns, still not letting on what the columns meant. So, for example, in the first column I put phrases like “went to a film festival”; in the second, “waited for my boyfriend”; and in the third, “walked my dog.” After I had a few phrases in each column, I finally revealed the rule: English verbs in the simple past are either (a) irregular, (b) regular, with the base verb ending in a /t/ or /d/ sound, so the -ed ending is pronounced as an extra syllable, or (c) regular, with the base verb ending in any other sound, so the -ed ending just sounds like /t/ or /d/ — no extra syllable.

We went over this a few times and practiced the pronunciation of the words in each column as a class. I then had them choose partners, and I passed out slips of paper to each pair with past tense verbs written on them. The students had to work together to sort their verbs into the three categories. I took the verbs from the Ventures textbook, which meant that all the words had to do with the unit we were working on. I walked around the class as the students worked on this, trying not to help too much. I wanted them to figure it out on their own by checking the spelling of the words and pronouncing them aloud with their partners.

When everyone had finished, we came back together to check answers as a class. I asked each pair of students in turn to read me one of their words and tell me which column to write it in. I would then ask the class if they agreed. If the word was in the correct column, we would practice pronouncing it aloud as a class. If it wasn’t placed correctly, I would ask another pair where they thought it should go. This didn’t happen very often, though, since the partners were very good at checking each other’s pronunciation.

This is one of my favorite lessons I’ve taught all semester. It gave my students a hands-on way to practice and remember a specific pronunciation rule. And although I know it could be months before they internalize this rule well enough to automatically pronounce these words correctly, at least they have a tool that they can use to move closer to natural English speech.

There are many websites with explanations of how to pronounce the simple past tense ending in -ed. Here are a few that may be useful to teachers.

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One Response to ESL Pronunciation Pitfall: The ‘-ed’ Ending of the Simple Past

  1. Todd Derck says:

    Thank you :) very helpful for me. Working in Thailand. started pronunciation last week for my after school class. Cheers!

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